ULTRA AND LOVING IT

Ashwini Ganapathi; at Everest Base Camp (Photo: courtesy Ashwini)

“ It was the toughest race of my life, yet worth the suffering! I shall cherish those four weeks spent hiking and racing,’’ Ashwini Ganapathi said of her experience at the 2022 edition of the Everest Marathon in Nepal.

The sole woman participant this year in the event’s ultramarathon segment, she finished ninth in a field of 15 (with one DNF). According to Ashwini, as per the organisers’ communication, the time she took to cover 60 kilometres – 15 hours and 40 minutes – seems to be the fourth best by a woman from outside Nepal, to date. Across both genders, the overall winner of the ultramarathon was Arjun Rai Kulung of Nepal who covered the distance in seven hours and four minutes. Of the top ten finishers, six were Nepali runners; the remaining were one each from Poland, Romania, USA and India. Besides Ashwini, the only other Indian runner in the 60 km-race was Ashish Kasodekar. He placed 11th, a few seconds behind Ashwini.

For Ashwini, the opportunity to run in Nepal represented a convergence of personal priorities. In 2019, she had run the Khardung La Challenge and followed it up with the Ladakh marathon. She had podium finishes in both. Comfortable with altitude and hiking up there, she had always wanted to do the trek to Everest Base Camp (EBC). Combining it with an opportunity to run the Everest Marathon appealed.

In 2022, there was also an additional reason prompting her to make the choice. A few weeks prior to the race in Nepal, she had learnt of her selection to the Indian team for the 24-Hour Asia & Oceania Championships 2022 scheduled to be held in Bengaluru in early July. A stint at altitude appeared an ideal component of the training. The Everest Marathon happens on May 29, which is the date on which the world’s highest peak was first ascended by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953. The event seemed well-placed in Ashwini’s training calendar for the championships in Bangalore. She consulted the officials in charge of the Indian team. They approved her participation in the Everest Marathon but reminded her not to push herself too much for she had to preserve herself for the championships.

While there were different packages on offer to participate in the Everest Marathon, in tune with her longstanding desire to do the EBC trek, Ashwini trekked solo and unsupported to EBC. “ I started my hike on 12th May and took the Gokyo Lakes route to reach EBC, covering 135 km, including four acclimatization and training days enroute. According to Wikipedia, the Gokyo Lakes, located at an altitude of 4700-5000 metres, form the world’s highest freshwater lake system. “ Climbing Gokyo Ri and crossing Chola Pass allowed me to further prepare for the race,’’ she said. Both the peak and the pass are at an elevation of over 5300 metres. One of the highlights of her EBC trek was that being a runner scheduled to participate in the Everest Marathon, upon reaching her destination, she got to stay at EBC, something typically enjoyed by climbers attempting Everest. During the two days of further acclimatization at EBC, the weather did throw up some concerns. There was snowfall and verglas, both of which made some of the runners worried about how the run would pan out.

Luckily, May 29 – race day – hosted good conditions. It was a clear day. “ Probably because they are so used to the environment, the local runners just shot off leaving the rest of us behind,’’ Ashwini said of the race’s start. The course was engaging and at around the 10th or 12th kilometre, there was a stiff climb. There was also a cut off at around 23.5 kilometres; that distance was required to be covered in five hours. Ashwini cleared it in approximately four hours and 20 minutes. Of the time she took to finish the race – 15 hours and 40 minutes – Ashwini said that she would have shaved-off some time had she pushed herself, which in this case, she had consciously decided not to. She dedicated her participation in the Everest Marathon to her mother, who has been ailing for the past few months.

From Everest Marathon; with Ashish Kasodekar (Photo: courtesy Ashwini)

Ashwini holds the national record in the 12-hour ultra-run. She set the record in February 2020, at Tuffman Chandigarh Stadium Run. She covered a distance of 111.78 km in the prescribed time period. Ashwini was active in sports during her school days, playing most sports and getting to state-level hockey tournaments. But during her time in engineering college, all sporting activity stopped.

In December 2014, she ran her first race, a 10 km-midnight event. Later, she came in contact with Pinkathon, a community that promotes running among women. Hooked to running, she signed up for several events in 2015. While scouting for races, she came across the Chennai Trail Marathon. She did a half marathon and followed it up with a full marathon in the following year. “ I was not focussed on timing at all. After my first marathon, I decided to go for structured training,” she said.

At the end of one of the marathons she ran, she realised that she could go on for some more distance. It prompted her to do her first ultra-running event, a 50 km-race at Yercaud Ultra. Soon after that, her first 12-hour stadium run happened at NEB Sports 36-Hour Bengaluru Stadium Run 2018. “ My aim was to just finish it. I covered a distance of 86 km,” she said. In the same year, she ran another 12-hour run at NEB Sports 24-Hour New Delhi Stadium Run. Here, she covered a distance of 93 km, finishing second among women.

At the 2019 edition of the 72km Khardung La Challenge in Ladakh, Ashwini finished second among women with a timing of 10:39:25 hours. She also completed the 90km trail race at Vagamon ULtrail in Kerala, emerging second runner-up. Running in Malnad Ultra in the same year, she set a course record in 110 km finishing it in 17.52 hours. She enjoys trail running and prefers it over other formats. In Dec 2019, she was the sole participant in the INS Shivaji Platinum Jubilee Celebration 75km run at Lonavala and finished fifth among 29 participants.

Indian ultra-runners were forced to pause their outdoor training when the country went into repeated lockdowns, starting with the first wave of COVID-19 in March 2020. Most ultra-runners used the time to step up their strength workout and focus on diet and rest, which are important elements of training. Ashwini was also forced to suspend her training every now and then.

In January 2021, running the 24-hour category race for the first time at the NEB Sports 24-Hour Bengaluru Stadium Run, Ashwini covered a distance of 180.8 km. Although, she missed the podium as she finished fourth among women, her performance came up for appreciation. In February 2022, Ashwini heard about Basar Running Ultra-Marathon Trail Experience (BRUTE) from two of her friends, Rajesh Narayana and Kushagra Sharma, who were organising the event. They got together to organise this ultra-running event, the first of its kind in Arunachal Pradesh. Basar is the headquarters of Lepa-Rada district of Arunachal Pradesh. Its average elevation is around 600 meters above sea level. There were 16 runners registered for 60 km, 10 runners for 30 km and about 300 for 5 km.

“ Five of us travelled from Bengaluru to the race venue. We took a flight from Bengaluru to Dibrugarh in Assam & after a arduous taxi ride, reached by evening. The organisers put us up in a homestay. Many of these homestays belonged to people who were associated with the non-governmental organisation (NGO), Gumin Rego Kilajo (GRK) that was involved in organising this event,’’ Ashwini explained. In the 60 km-race she had chosen, there were all of three women participating.

From Basar Running Ultra-Marathon Trail Experience in Arunachal Pradesh (Photo: courtesy Ashwini)

On Saturday, March 5, 2022, the runners were transported to the starting point of the race. The cut-off for Ashwini’s race was 10 hours. The route was a mix of forest trails, both uphill and downhill, village roads and a small portion through roads. Of the total course, about 60-70 percent was primarily trail. The runners had to cross two streams towards the end and also cross using suspension bridges. “ Running on these suspension bridges was quite scary as the bridge kept bouncing up and down with the runners stomping through it,’’ she said. It was quite a challenging route and some parts were a bit technical. “ I decided to take it easy and enjoy the run, chatting with villagers along the route and taking photographs. There were a few aid stations along the route where water was being served in bamboo. Also, villagers were serving us locally grown oranges and pitha, a local rice flour preparation steamed in bamboo. The villagers volunteered enthusiastically and cheered the runners. We passed through many villages along the route. I finished the race at 3:45 pm covering the distance in eight hours and 50 minutes. Although the cut-off for 60 km was 10 hours, the organisers indicated that no one would be stopped from running despite crossing the cut-off time as it was the first edition of the event,’’ she said.

Following the ultra in Arunachal, Ashwini was part of the IAU 6-Hour Virtual Global Solidarity Run. On 30th April,2022 she took part in the 12-Hour Stadium Run organised by NEB Sports, as part of training and qualification for the 24 hr-Indian Team. She covered 96 kms and finished second in the race.

With the EBC project done and now back in Bengaluru, Ashwini has returned to her training for the upcoming championships in July.

(The authors, Latha Venkatraman and Shyam G Menon, are independent journalists based in Mumbai.)